The news from Syria suggests that the balance of power between the regime and its enemies is shifting against Bashar al-Assad and his loyalists. Joseph Holliday of the Institute for the Study of War writes, “The conflict in Syria is approaching a tipping point at which the insurgency will control more territory than the regime.” The rebel forces, he reports, number 40,000 men and they control their “own de facto safe zones around Homs city, in northern Hama, and in the Idlib countryside,” while the regime still holds “key urban centers in Damascus, Homs, and Idlib,” which were seized in offensives in February and March. The regime has so few loyal forces at its disposal that it will be hard put to mount a major offensive in the countryside while still retaining control of the urban areas.
That point is buttressed by this report from the field filed by Marine infantryman-turned-reporter Austin Tice, who has been embedded with the rebel forces. He writes:
Weeks of observation of Syrian military operations while traveling with rebel forces leave the impression that the Syrian army is unfamiliar with modern military tactics. It rarely engages rebel forces directly and appears instead to rely on poorly aimed and random fire to intimidate its opponents. Helicopters observed in northern and central portions of the country fly at an altitude that prevents their effective tactical employment.
The White House appears to be digging in its heels against any further aid to the Syrian rebels beyond the provision of communications equipment. It is hard to know how lasting this position will be as the president had previously touted Bashar al-Assad as a negotiating partner before calling for his departure from office. And last year, the administration resisted weeks of entreaties to intervene in Libya before deciding to do so. Events in Syria may dictate a more forceful White House response–events such as the recent firing across the Turkish border by Syrian security forces. A few more incidents like that and Turkey may decided to establish “safe zones” within Syria–a move that would probably drag the U.S. along given the close ties between President Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan.
But why has the administration refused to act so far? On its face this refusal is mysterious given that the human rights situation in Syria is even more appalling than the conditions which prevailed in Libya prior to the U.S.-led intervention–and the strategic stakes are considerably higher. The administration has offered various explanations of why intervention wouldn’t work–e.g., claiming that the rebels aren’t united enough or that Assad’s air defenses are too formidable or that UN authorization is lacking–but, as I have previously noted, these explanations are not terribly compelling, especially given a death toll climbing north of 10,000 as we do nothing. If the president wanted to intervene, as he did in Libya, he could easily find cause to override the arguments of naysayers. Why hasn’t he done so?
What a surprise–not. Just days after former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan unveiled a supposed deal whereby the Syrian government would pull its forces back from cities it had been assaulting, the opposition reports that attacks are going on as heavy as before in four major cities: Hama, Homs, Idlib and Dara. The odds that a ceasefire will actually be observed on April 10 appear slim.
This is likely to be the latest of countless promises that Bashar al-Assad has broken. It is not hard to see the reason for his duplicity: nothing less than regime survival–and his personal survival–are at stake. Assad knows that if he calls off his troops, his people will continue to rise against him. Therefore, he has no choice if he is to remain in power but to continue the bloody work of repression. To think anything else is the height of naiveté.
Under the category of “better late than never” (but just barely): An international “Friends of Syria” group of nations agreed in Istanbul to step up aid, at least of the non-lethal sort, to the Syrian rebels. Gulf nations pledged $100 million to pay salaries to the anti-Assad fighters while the U.S. agreed to send communications equipment to help the rebels get better organized.
That’s certainly a step forward, but it’s not as far as the U.S. and its allies should go. As Molham Al Drobi, a member of the Syrian National Council, told the New York Times: “Our people are killed in the streets. If the international community prefers not to do it themselves, they should at least help us doing it by giving us the green light, by providing us the arms, or anything else that needs to be done.”
There is something perverse and a little bit circular about the administration argument that we can’t help the Syrian opposition until they get better organized. As this National Journal article notes, Hillary Clinton last week told a House committee the opposition in Libya “had a face, both the people who were doing the outreach diplomatically and the fighters. We could actually meet with them. We could eyeball them. We could ask them tough questions. Here, you know, when [Ayman al-] Zawahiri of al-Qaida comes out and supports the Syrian opposition, you’ve got to ask yourself: ‘If we arm, who are we arming?”
The problem is that the Syrian opposition is not likely to get better organized until the U.S. and other outside powers make a decision to help them. In fact by deciding to provide money, arms, and other aid we could support the more moderate and responsible elements of the opposition while sidelining the extremists. No doubt we should be careful about where we distribute arms, but handing out small arms does not pose much of a strategic threat to Israel or other American allies even if they fall into the wrong hands. No one is suggesting giving Stingers to the Free Syrian Army.